December 31, 2020
Video games have not been a niche hobby for quite some time now — Grand Theft Auto V has grossed over $6 billion since its release, a number that dwarfs all of the biggest movies in box office history — but 2020 is the year where they truly dominated popular culture. A year defined by finding things to do to entertain ourselves at home spawned several phenomenons in gaming, from the runaway success of Among Us to the shared rage of not being able to pick up a next-gen console.
To put it lightly, I spent a lot of time with a controller in my hand this year, trying to make it through the last nine months while keeping safe and remaining in touch with my friends. There was a little something for everyone this year: narrative experiences, run-and-gun shooters, silly multiplayer games, and the restoration of beloved classics for modern audiences.
I did not play close to every big game this year — I would love to have that much time and money — but these were the best of the best for me, the games you should play in the early days of 2021 if you haven't already.
The Last of Us Part II, Animal Crossing, Ghost of Tsushima, Half-Life: Alyx, Spiderman: Miles Morales, Doom Eternal
I wrote extensively about my gripes with TLOUII earlier this year, but it is still a well-made game at the end of the day, even if I have major gripes with its story beats and think it is overestimated as a gameplay showcase. Ghost of Tsushima did an excellent job of making the tasks of a modern open-world game feel fun to pursue rather than chores to get through, a trend I hope carries over to more games down the road. And Animal Crossing, though not exactly my cup of tea, was the undisputed king of lockdown gaming, released during a period when a whole lot of people needed an escape from the real world.
The final three games on the list are games I did not actually play this year but would like to get to at some point (it'll probably be a while on Alyx as I do not currently possess a gaming PC or a VR kit). Based on the overall consensus, I feel comfortable dropping them here.
For all the Among Us fans out there, I do not especially enjoy the biggest game of the year but it is not here mostly because it is not a game from 2020, even if it only became popular this year.
The Souls series and the side games that have spun off of them have become so famous for their difficulty and impact on game design that some gamers have taken to calling games, "The Dark Souls of [insert genre here]." Demon's Souls, originally released on the PS3, was the title that started it all, and the remaster experts at Bluepoint prettied it up to lead us all into the next generation.
Quality of life upgrades make it a bit more forgiving than the OG title — you wouldn't believe how much of a difference it makes to have eight-direction rolling until you try to play without it — but it is still a game that forces you to learn from your mistakes, most of which lead to death. Though its bosses are weaker in comparison to the games that have followed it, the unique setting of each archstone and hallmark gameplay more than make up for that. The third archstone is a highlight, a dark hospital filled with Lovecraftian-horrors opens up to a series of sky bridges patrolled by—well, I don't want to spoil everything for you.
As a PS5 launch title, it benefits greatly from the improved load times of the next-gen console, those aformentioned deaths leading to a momentary inconvenience rather than an excruciating loading screen. You spend a lot more time actually playing the game and attempting to master the combat and navigation skills necessary to complete a run.
It is not without its flaws, many of which are tied to the systems in place from the original game. Navigating the menu and understanding important systems like World Tendency is not necessarily intuitive, especially if you're the sort of person who wants the game to lead you by the hand and not force you to search for information online. Souls fans (myself included) will tell you discovery and learning are part of the charm, but that only carries you so far.
If you have followed me on Twitter throughout the year, no doubt you have seen an abundance of clips from the game that most took me by surprise in 2020. Battle royales were the big cash-in genre after the breakout success of Fortnite, and all it took to liven up a stale concept was a bright palette of colors and 60 jelly-legged beans wearing banana costumes.
The beauty of Fall Guys is its ability to entertain new players while still rewarding mastery of the events throughout the game. You can choose to be an aggressor, yanking and pushing your fellow competitors toward their doom, or take the path of least resistance, hoping not to draw the ire of the wrong opponent in the lead-up to the final. You have not truly known pain until you get 90 percent of the way through a picture-perfect run in Slime Climb, only to get blocked from the exit and launched into an ocean of slime by a miniature being in a Gato Roboto outfit.
Repetition of events became a problem for the game over time, an issue that was eventually solved as new seasons for the game brought new activities and remixes of old events with them. The player count has fallen to a smaller, more dedicated group of players, increasing the challenge to win a tad, but it is as fun (and perhaps more fun) to play with a few friends now as it was when it released in August.
Fall Guys follows in the footsteps of PS Plus great Rocket League, launching for free on PlayStation and becoming a phenomenon (albeit a brief one, with Among Us seizing the zeitgeist) in the late months of COVID summer. It is the game that made me laugh the most of anything this year, in part because it was one of the few activities this year you could reliably do with your friends. Come see me in Hex if you dare.
The original Spelunky is as close as I think you can get to making a perfect game. To a newcomer, it is a simple, frustrating, ridiculously hard game that feels like it actively (and randomly) works against your success. To borrow from a phrase I mentioned above, it is more like the Dark Souls of roguelike platformers, a game that rewards time investment, patience, and acquired knowledge above all else.
Can you make a better version of a perfect game? Spelunky 2 is proof that it's possible. The sequel is a labyrinth of secret passages, easter eggs, and inch-perfect runs that can be undone with just one wrong step. Strategies that were honed over time, like robbing the poor shopkeepers throughout the game, have been accounted for on the developer side, only for players to find a way to circumvent them again. If you can stomach dozens of repeated failures and fight off creeping doubt, a successful run will be one of the most satisfying gaming victories you'll have. And then you'll realize you still haven't reached the game's secret areas, and go plundering back through the darkness once more.
(A note on that front — I have yet to reach the game's final area, a 99 level gauntlet I know how to reach and have fallen short of on many a promising run. I am Captain Ahab chasing the white whale. Let the record also show I have gotten a lot better and smarter than I was in the clip up top.)
For the masochist, there is nothing better that was released in 2020. If you're the sort who wants help (and a friend by your side), co-op is a riot in this game, but know that your allies can get you killed as easily as anything else.
This had all the makings of a colossal disappointment. Bringing an all-time classic into a modern format is hard enough to do in the best of circumstances, and the development of the reimagining of FFVII was tortured to say the least. Many assumed a release would never come, and in a year punctuated by the colossal failure of Cyberpunk 2077, a botched Final Fantasy release would have been fitting.
To my delight, Final Fantasy VII Remake is a game that brought its namesake into 2020 without losing the soul that made it great. In a year filled with beautiful games (The Last of Us Part II and Ghost of Tsushima regularly blew me away), this was the game that did the most with sight and sound. The contrast between the towering corporate hub of Midgar and its downtrodden slums, stitched together with plywood and sheet metal, drives home the stakes of the fight for the game's memorable cast of characters.
With due respect to the turn-based combat of the original, the style of Remake kept elements of might and magic while converting to a more engaging, action-heavy slasher that varies depending on the character you're controlling. Riding and sword-fighting on motorcycles through a maze of neon tunnels, using ranged characters to set up a big combo for Cloud, and fighting a flying house felt better to me than they did when I played the original.
The only real complaint about the game is that, well, it has decided to take some creative liberties with a story most people did not want to see change. While that was an inevitable byproduct of stretching a small opening segment of the game into a thorough standalone title, it calls into question how Square Enix will alter the story in the sequels yet to come. But I'm quite fine with leaving (some of) the past behind, so it didn't detract from a terrific experience for me.
I wrote a more extensive article about the game in the spring if you'd care to read more.
An early-access darling that finally got its 1.0 release this September, I was a bit skeptical of Hades at first glance. Supergiant is a terrific developer but unlike many other contemporaries in the roguelike/roguelite genre, Hades' progression system keeps you at an arm's length in the early stages of the game, making it difficult to win one of your first few runs on pure skill alone.
Over time, it more than makes up for that decision with the best narrative skeleton of any game in the genre. The creators of Bastion and Transistor are well-regarded for their art style, dialogue/voice acting, and gameplay, and Hades feels like the culmination of all their previous work rolled into one game. Whether you are failing to escape hell or triumphing over the final boss, the story and the lore continue to expand, rewarding even the players who find themselves struggling with how to build a winning run.
Many games promise the ability to play however you choose, few see that mission through. The gifts of various Greek gods make that possible in Hades — it is possible to play one run built around revenge skills and intentionally taking damage to kill your enemies, then play the next run with a bow and arrow and moving in and out of the shadows without being hit. Each of the game's weapons can also be customized/upgraded with unique skills that fundamentally change how they're used, allowing for nearly limitless combinations of skills and weaponry.
And that's before we can discuss the modifiers that become available once you start winning, changing boss mechanics, putting a timer on your runs, and making it more expensive to shop for items in the midst of your run, among many other changes that are possible. It can be as easy or as difficult as you want it to be.
On top of all of that, it is a bargain at $25 and often dips below that on both Steam and Nintendo Switch. It is affordable, endlessly engaging entertainment during a year where it has been especially critical to hit both those marks. Do not miss out on Hades.
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